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Two ways to belong in America


Two Ways to Belong in America
By BHARATI MUKHERJEE September 22, 1996: New York Times
IOWA CITY -- This is a tale of two sisters from Calcutta, Mira and Bharati, who have lived in the United States for some 35 years, but who find themselves on different sides in the current debate over the status of immigrants. I am an American citizen and she is not. I am moved that thousands of long-term residents are finally taking the oath of citizenship. She is not. Mira arrived in Detroit in 1960 to study child psychology and pre-school education. I followed her a year later to study creative writing at the University of Iowa. When we left India, we were almost identical in appearance and attitude. We dressed alike, in saris; we expressed identical views on politics, social issues, love and marriage in the same Calcutta convent-school accent. We would endure our two years in America, secure our degrees, then return to India to marry the grooms of our father's choosing. Instead, Mira married an Indian student in 1962 who was getting his business administration degree at Wayne State University. They soon acquired the labor certifications necessary for the green card of hassle-free residence and employment. Mira still lives in Detroit, works in the Southfield, Mich., school system, and has become nationally recognized for her contributions in the fields of pre-school education and parent-teacher relationships. After 36 years as a legal immigrant in this country, she clings passionately to her Indian citizenship and hopes to go home to India when she retires. In Iowa City in 1963, I married a fellow student, an American of Canadian parentage. Because of the accident of his North Dakota birth, I bypassed labor-certification requirements and the race-related "quota" system that favored the applicant's country of origin over his or her merit. I was prepared for (and even welcomed) the emotional strain that came with marrying outside my ethnic community. In 33 years of marriage, we have lived in every part of North America. By choosing a husband who was not my father's selection, I was opting for fluidity, self-invention, blue jeans and T-shirts, and renouncing 3,000 years (at least) of caste-observant, "pure culture" marriage in the Mukherjee family. My books have often been read as unapologetic (and in some quarters overenthusiastic) texts for cultural and psychological "mongrelization." It's a word I celebrate. Mira and I have stayed sisterly close by phone. In our regular Sunday morning conversations, we are unguardedly affectionate. I am her only blood relative on this continent. We expect to see each other through the looming crises of aging and ill health without being asked. Long before Vice President Gore's "Citizenship U.S.A." drive, we'd had our polite arguments over the ethics of retaining an overseas citizenship while expecting the permanent protection and economic benefits that come with living and working in America. Like well-raised sisters, we never said what was really on our minds, but we probably pitied one another. She, for the lack of structure in my life, the erasure of Indianness, the absence of an unvarying daily core. I, for the narrowness of her perspective, her uninvolvement with the mythic depths or the superficial pop culture of this society. But, now, with the scapegoating of "aliens" (documented or illegal) on the increase, and the targeting of long-term legal immigrants like Mira for new scrutiny and new self-consciousness, she and I find ourselves unable to maintain the same polite discretion. We were always

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to vote and make the difference that I can. I realize. without risk or recklessness. through a Green Paper that invited a national referendum on the unwanted side effects of "nontraditional" immigration. I need to put roots down. I've invested my creativity and professional skills into the improvement of this country's pre-school system.I married it -. and we are now. and that the exile avoids. when I was living in my husband's ancestral homeland of Canada.edu/~kitchens/150c/mukherjee/ unacknowledged adversaries. and to expect. Until all this hysteria against legal immigrants. one city. and petitioned for the labor certification. is the voice not just of the immigrant South Asian community but of an immigrant community of the millions who have stayed rooted in one job. I need to feel like a part of the community I have adopted (as I tried to feel in Canada as well). rather than fear. Mira and I differ. I feel some kind of irrational attachment to India that I don't to America. in the ways in which we hope to interact with the country that we have chosen to live in. I was totally happy. Which of us is the freak? Mira's voice. For over 30 years. citizen for now. How dare America now change its rules in midstream? If America wants to make new rules curtailing benefits of legal immigrants. She is happier to live in America as expatriate Indian than as an immigrant American. and that's as far as her Americanization can go. the Government officially turned against its immigrant communities. they should apply only to immigrants who arrive after those rules are already in place." Mira raged on the phone the other night. and thousands like me.S.Two ways to belong in America http://personalwebs. particularly those from South Asia. and the casual racist outbursts the Green Paper elicited. she surprised me.) My sister is an expatriate. This is such an unfair way to treat a person who was invited to stay and work here because of her talent. one house. Then. Having my green card meant I could visit any place in the world I wanted to and then come back to a job that's satisfying and that I do very well.oakland. I was always well-employed but never allowed to feel part of the local Quebec or larger Canadian society. from the country. the millions of hard-working but effectively silenced documented immigrants as well as their less fortunate "illegal" brothers and sisters. the domestics. "I feel manipulated and discarded." To my ears. born of confidence from her education. I will never forget the pain of that sudden turning. I love my students." the saris. sisters. I'll play it too. She is here to maintain an identity. one ancestral culture. She retained them all.N. I love the friends I've made. the shop owners. America spoke to me -. comfortable yet loveless marriage. more than ever. one cuisine. I love my work. "If America wants to play the manipulative game. not to transform it. My employer went to the I.S. surrendering those thousands of years of "pure culture. socially courteous and gracious. that we be loved? (That." In one family. "I'll become a U. The price that the immigrant willingly pays. to me." she snapped. differentiate her from the seamstresses. I felt then the same sense of betrayal that Mira feels now. for the entirety of their productive years. however. then change back to Indian when I'm ready to go home.I embraced the demotion from expatriate aristocrat to immigrant nobody. it sounded like the description of a long-enduring. there could not be a wider divergence of immigrant experience. the technicians. the delightfully accented English. Nearly 20 years ago. I've obeyed all the rules. I asked her if she would follow the example of others who have decided to become citizens because of the anti-immigration bills in Congress. Have we the right to demand. is the subtext of the arguments by immigration advocates. I've paid my taxes. That sense of betrayal had its desired effect and drove me. And here. Biography: 2 of 3 6/17/08 11:40 AM . "I feel used. She speaks for greater numbers than I possibly can. Only the fluency of her English and the anger. from two sisters alike as peas in a pod. is the trauma of self-transformation. professionally generous and creative.

edu/authors/bharatimukherjee.html 3 of 3 6/17/08 11:40 AM .oakland.Two ways to belong in America http://personalwebs.umn.edu/~kitchens/150c/mukherjee/ http://voices.cla.